I have always loved the water. My parents had a pool when I was growing up, and after buying my own house I missed not having the clear blue water in the back yard. So against the desires of my wife, I had an in-ground pool installed about 13 years ago. The kids and I have spent countless hours in that pool over the years. And I’m a fairly decent swimmer…or so I thought!
When I began training for my first sprint triathlon, I wasn’t concerned about the bike workouts. I had been cycling for a few years, and had been in a few races. The run workouts??? Those I was worried about. I wasn’t a runner at all, so it was something that I knew I would have to study and struggle though.
But the swimming….THAT I knew would be easy. Well not easy, since we can all improve, but I didn’t think I’d have any problems completing the workouts. Boy was I wrong!
I think the first workout was to swim 8 x 25 drills and 4 x 50 free. If I remember correctly, I tried the first 25 yards doing a one arm drill. I about drowned because I couldn’t get enough air between strokes. So I tried a kicking drill, and didn’t think I would EVER make it to the other end of the pool. I couldn’t wait to get to the actual work set, but realized that I could barely do that either. It was at that moment that I realized that swimming in a 32 FOOT long pool is quite different than swimming in a 25 YARD long pool. (For the uninitiated, that’s 2.3 times longer!)
So I decided to become a student of swimming. And over time I realized that I needed to change the basic structure of my stroke in order to be able to swim long distances. Here’s what I learned.
1. Long, straight objects move through the water faster and with less effort than short, bent objects. In other words, keep your body long and straight. Don’t let your legs bend at the hips. Keep your knees straight. Keep your lead arm out in front until the recovering arm (the one that just did a full stroke) is entering the water by your head. This keeps your weight balanced over your chest, which acts like a fulcrum.
2. Use a 2 beat kick. In other words, when your left arm is stroking back, kick with your right leg and drive your right hip down. Rest while your left arm recovers, and when it enters the water and the right arm strokes, kick with your left leg and drive your left hip down. In endurance racing, the kick should only be used to keep your legs from dropping. Why wear yourself out kicking when you have to cycle and run afterwards?
3. Begin the stroke by bending the elbow. Keep the upper arm out in front, but bend the elbow so that the back of your hand faces the front wall. Your forearm will be anywhere from straight down to about a 45 degree angle, in a plane with the front wall. As you do this, your body will naturally rotate and your recovering hand will shoot forward.
4. At this point, use your back muscles to forcefully pull your upper arm back while keeping your forearm in the same plane as the front wall. When your elbow is all the way back, straighten your forearm to finish the stroke with your hand near your hip.
5. Bend your elbow, keeping it high, and let your fingertips barely miss the top of the water as you slowly bring your hand up near your ear to enter the water while your lead hand bends and begins another stroke.
Use the slow, relaxed recovery to glide through the water. A slower stroke forces you to focus on your technique. Think about every movement of your body. Speed isn’t important at this point…technique is. Count your strokes (every hand entry) and try to hit 17-21 strokes per 25 yards or meters. The lower the better.
Once you get to the point where you can consistently do 100 yard repeats at 17-21 strokes per length, try increasing your stroke rate by the slightest amount. (A tempo trainer is helpful here.) By keeping your strokes per length the same, but increasing your stroke rate, you will increase your speed. Keep practicing at this stroke rate until you can again be at the lower spectrum of the strokes per length. Then increase your stroke rate again.
The more you improve your strength and technique, the faster you will be!